More studies, news, and conversations are becoming public about "burnout," the state where people are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted from unrelenting and high levels of stress. Burnout can affect everyone in our society, from YouTubers, to students, to corporate executives. It's a reality that, although not a new phenomenon, worries me personally as I see this topic come up more often in my Career Coaching practice.
[Note: I usually mention "studies" and don't add links to them because many don't find them enjoyable to read, and because anyone can find these by Googling nowadays. FYI - here's a recent one I read about the effects of long work hours on our psyche.]
Many of you may have heard about "death from overwork" in Japan (the term is Karoshi), which is an extreme outcome of burnout (yet not isolated to workers in Japan). Corporate policies, industry practices, government regulations and even cultural norms have a culpable role in workers burning out, but I will leave it to more knowledgeable advocates to elaborate on the successes and challenges of bringing improvements for workers rights. This blog post focuses on individuals, what actions we can take through knowledge and greater self-awareness to improve our well-being.
Burning-out doesn't happen overnight. The accumulation of stress and exhaustion happens over time (even in stages) until we find ourselves at a break-point.
Here are a few signs of burnout:
Tiredness and exhaustion (mental, physical and emotional)
Disengagement in work and life activities
Mood swings including outbursts of anger
Missed deadlines and commitments
Time off from work
[Caveat - This is not a comprehensive list AND a single symptom alone (i.e. taking time off) does not mean someone is burning-out. Sometimes a vacation is just a vacation. 🙂 ]
The impact on our personal and professional lives is serious, and can include:
Depression and anxiety
Poor performance rating
Clouded judgement and misinterpreting intentions
Lacking sense of accomplishment
Feeling of guilt
Unfortunately, the list of negative outcomes doesn't end there but I think you get the point.
Let's keep external factors such as employment policies, labour regulations and local customs out of the picture at the moment. What would you guess is the source to which people I've spoken to trace their burnout symptoms?....THEMSELVES / I / MYSELF
This is a beautiful revelation - and it is true evidence of self-awareness. It is OUR passions and OUR personalities that determine how much effort we put into our work. Once we are in the working world, the expectation we set for ourselves is usually higher than anyone else's. Couple this with our natural tendencies to please others, in a new job, with a new client or a new manager, and the risk of burnout increase.
We expect a certain amount of reward from our efforts, and when that reward does not match or exceed our efforts or expectations, we start to question our actions and purpose. Those that call themselves "perfectionists" or "workaholics" have a difficult time fending off burnout. We start to question the actions of others ("why isn't John pulling his weight?"), start to define success for everyone in the same way (usually by our own definition), and stop empathizing with the personal circumstances and unique abilities of others.
What you can do to avoid burnout?
Know your limits - For some people it could be acknowledging there is limited time in the day, especially when personal commitments and obligations are deducted.
Set your boundaries - It one thing to know where your boundaries are, and quite another to enforce those boundaries. It takes will-power to turn down opportunities and practice to distinguish better opportunities from good ones. Learning to let go is a great way to demonstrate you know your limits and can set boundaries for yourself.
Recharge and rediscover your passions - Each of us may replenish our energy differently. Taking time to identify what brings us joy can help us plan for activities that charge rather than deplete our energy.
Get support - This is the time to inform and enlist the help of those around us including those who rely on us (e.g. family, peers, managers), and treat them as allies rather than tormentors.
This post focused on preventative measures to burnout and I've purposefully stopped short of talking about recovery from burnout, because this should be a separate blog post. Suffice it to say that this is a complex topic itself since those returning from a state of burnout tend to repeat their experience by self-imposing the belief that others expect them to be 'new and improved,' and thereby relapsing into their past state. This is an interesting topic to explore another day.
I would love to know your thoughts or experience dealing with burnout. What do you suggest to avoid burnout?